Illustration of Voyager 1. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, the farthest human-made object from Earth, seems to be a little confused about what is going on in its distant location in interstellar space. The long-lived probe and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched on their epic space journeys in 1977 and are the first spacecraft ever to reach interstellar space, which is the great cosmic expanse beyond the dominant influence of the Sun.
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But lately Voyager 1 has been sending “invalid data'' about its journey into this unexplored frontier, according to a NASA statement released on Wednesday. The glitch is affecting the probe’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS), which orients the spacecraft on its travels, and ensures that its communication antenna faces Earth. While the AACS system is correctly pointed toward Earth, it has started babbling “random” telemetry data and other gibberish about the probe being in positions that are not possible, NASA said.“A mystery like this is sort of par for the course at this stage of the Voyager mission,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager 1 and 2 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the statement. “The spacecraft are both almost 45 years old, which is far beyond what the mission planners anticipated.” “We’re also in interstellar space—a high-radiation environment that no spacecraft have flown in before,” Dodd added. “So there are some big challenges for the engineering team. But I think if there’s a way to solve this issue with the AACS, our team will find it.”The malfunction hasn’t tripped any of the spacecraft’s warning systems, interrupted its science operations, or activated its safe mode, which is a state in which all systems are switched off except essential functions. It’s also not clear if the issue is solely related to the AACS system, or if some other instruments are involved in the random datasteams. Voyager 2, meanwhile, is unaffected and continues to operate normally.NASA’s Voyager team has long anticipated the eventual retirement of the mission, which may happen in the coming years as the probes approach their fifth decade in space. Though the spacecraft are slowly losing power, they continue to make amazing discoveries as they trail-blaze into interstellar space. Even when they do finally slip into permanent radio silence, the Voyagers will serve as emissaries for humankind in the Milky Way, as they bear Golden Records that contain information about our species and express greetings to the galaxy from Earth.